A New Approach in NSW to Shooters with Mental Health or Family Court Matters - The Loose Cannon
I was very disappointed to hear earlier this week that Superintendent Bell of the Firearms Registry describing how he proposes to get tough on the shooting community.
He is seeking to have a group in the Registry determine if a person's mental health conditions or presence as a litigant in Family Law proceedings rule them out as lawful firearm owners.
I note here, that I would have expected that a person with violent propensities involved in Family Law proceedings would already have come to the attention of NSW Police attention via an AVO. Indeed, it is my experience that restraining orders from the Family Courts in NSW are relatively rare these days, and that most such situations are handled by AVO’s from the Local Courts as this remedy is at no cost to an alleged victim.
Furthermore, there is ample research, including that by the anti-gun academic, Richard Harding, that describes mental health as the weakest argument in favour of firearms laws. For a more recent and detailed analysis see Pirelli Weschler and Cramer 'The Behavioural Science of Firearms'.
One concern of mine is that the recent audit report highlighted a failure by the Registry to apply NCAT decisions, and factor them into their decision making.
My experience is that the Registry 'cherry pick' decisions that justify a negative outcome for shooters.
In no area of registry operations is this more evident than in dealing with mental health matters. This imposes high assessment costs on shooters because the Registry will not accept an assessment by a general practitioner.
I have also seen a number of incidents where reporting by medical practitioners or health workers has been malicious and they tend to over react toward shooters.
One personal example is that my mother was in Kenmore Geriatric Hospital in Goulburn last year. The discharge summary referred to my mother as being under my guardianship, but noted that I was a 'Firearms Lawyer'.
The relevance of this is open to speculation, but it is an example of the type of prejudice that we as shooters face on a regular basis.
Now, out of fairness to Superintendent Bell, he may have an intention of having a specialist unit overcome past problems and treat shooters fairly. He is new to the job, and I believe in giving him the benefit of the doubt. However, such is not evident from the language expressed in the article.
I might add, that this ‘specialist unit’ shall comprise only of clerks who have been given limited training in psychology, that probably shall go no further than reading pages copied out of a ‘Compete Idiot’s Guide To Psychology’. These people shall in no way be experts.
Indeed, the need to train such a group highlights a suspicion that I have long held, that staff at the Registry assessing firearms / mental health matters have not had the necessary skill to exercise this task, leading to bad decision making. What is particularly bad about this, is that it is not just ‘bad’ decision making, it amounts to institutional discrimination against one of the most vulnerable groups in the community.
Now, what is wrong with the approach adopted by Superintendent Bell and his staff?
He shall no doubt catch a number of shooters who have failed to disclose a mental health problem for fear of persecution. Most of these people shall have had a low-level reactive depression, perhaps to a break up in a relationship, and they have correctly feared that if they reported it to the Registry, the manner in which it would be handled would elevate the problem from a low level reactive depression to a high level one, as institutional persecution can have that effect.
However, each of these people have breached the requirements of their licence and the Registry would not view them as being ‘fit and proper persons’.
Tactically this may be regarded as a good move, in that it shall catch out some low level dishonesty, but lets move beyond tactical thinking to strategic thinking- the high level thinking that one would expect of Senior Police or Public Servants.
If you encourage Doctors to report people with mental health problems who shoot, a likely result shall be that shooters shall not seek early medical intervention when they have a psychological problem. This could lead to the problem escalating with catastrophic consequences.
Here I am reminded of a conversation that I had during the last drought with a Psychiatrist in South West NSW. I rang him to ask if he would prepare a report on the fitness of a patient to have a firearms licence. I was surprised at his response, as he did not have much positive to say about the way shooters with psychiatric issues are dealt with in NSW, and he said words to the following effect:
‘Farmers around here are dying like flies and the damned fool Firearms Registry has policies that discourage farmers from seeking help. It is hard enough to get a man to see a Psychiatrist in the first place without the law actively discouraging them from doing so. A few counselling sessions and a handful of pills would be all it would take to make most feel that life was not without hope’.
His words resonated with me as it appears obvious that the new approach, like the old one, is neither efficient nor effective as shooters fear being ‘persecuted to the grave’ if they report a mental health difficulty, and the approach scares people away from seeking early intervention, i.e. being diagnosed and appropriately treated.
The other concern I see from the Telegraph article is that the General Manager of the NSW Registry has seen a ‘Golden’ opportunity, and is swanning around the Pacific talking to NZ Police about how to do their job in respect to firearms, when, if one considers the Auditor General’s report, her time would be better spent at home moving the NSW Registry toward best practice.
If Superintendent Bell wishes to give me a ring, I would welcome an opportunity to elaborate upon my concerns with him.
National Firearms Lawyer
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Simon Munslow is a lawyer who has a lifelong interest in shooting, having acquired his first firearm at the age of nine, and has had an active interest in firearms law since writing a thesis on the topic over thirty years ago at University.
Simon Munslow practices extensively in Firearms Law matters throughout Australia.
He is a regular contributor to the Australian Sporting Shooter magazine’s website on Firearms law matters, has published articles on firearms reviews and firearms law, and occasionally is asked to comment in the broader media on firearms matters.
This article is written for general information only and does not constitute advice.
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